Through Frosted Glass: Zhang Liangui on China’s DPRK Intel and the Purge of Jang Song-taek
No scholar working in China today seems as able to irritate the North Korean leadership as Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing. On December 20, 2013, Zhang published a Huanqiu Shibao editorial that asserted that North Korea had allowed the tombs of Chinese soldiers from the Korean War to fall into disrepair. While Zhang’s earlier complaints went unanswered by the North Koreans, this time, very unusually, it was taken public by the DPRK Embassy in Beijing, which sought to rebut the allegations in no less a forum than the People’s Daily, calling Zhang “a so-called expert” spreading lies about North Korea.
My colleagues at Sino-NK have been doing yeoman’s work in order to keep track of Dr. Zhang’s many fascinating outputs and those of his colleagues like Zhu Feng. I hope to add to this growing body of mainly Chinese-language source work by unearthing gems in the form of Zhang Lian’gui’s extensive and highly revealing interview with a Chinese television station. Part 1 of this effort can be read as background to the current episode, which focuses again on Jang Song-taek and Chinese intelligence on North Korea.
Zhang Liangui, “张琏瑰：张成泽事件后的朝鲜及东北亚局势“ [Zhang Liangui: The Situation in North Korea and North East Asia following the Jang Sung-taek Incident], Consensus Online, January 22, 2014
Host: Currently most of the information we get about North Korea comes from South Korea. Do we have any of this kind of exclusive information [独家信息]?
Zhang Liangui: It has to be said that of the countries bordering North Korea, South Korea is best able to collect information on North Korea because of their shared ethnicity and shared language. They have these advantageous conditions [有它的优长，有它的顺便条件]. Therefore, South Korea is probably the country that understands North Korea the most. A lot of the things that we hear about North Korea come from South Korea.
Although we hope to get even more precise information from North Korea, regrettably, North Korean leaks don’t give us much. When there’s news, other than looking at the government’s very formal-style slogans and wording [非常官方的制式口号和言辞以外], we don’t know about the more lively details [更生动一些的细节].
Under relative conditions, this ends up influencing our observations and understanding of North Korea. If North Korea knew about these issues, and was able to open up a bit more to the international community, and give more of an introduction regarding their actual situation, it would help to revise the inaccurate information coming from the South Korean side. This is what we researchers are hoping for, and I think this is what most Chinese people are hoping for, too.
Host: How good are China’s intelligence reports on North Korea?
Zhang Jiangui: Because I’m not involved in the writing of intelligence reports, I really don’t know about this sort of thing. It’s hard to say what kind of standard these reports meet.
Host: On an international level, how good is China’s research on North Korea?
Zhang Jiangui: China’s research on North Korea is probably relatively good in the eyes of other countries. We often have contact with South Koreans – there are some particular aspects of North Korea that they understand quite well.
But because their social system and political cultures are totally different than those of North Korea, they don’t really understand the logic behind the methods or ways by which North Korea does things [做法、办事逻辑]. So the South Koreans often end up issuing mistaken judgments. We have similar historical experiences as North Korea, and, in the past, both of us were members of the socialist camp, so China can easily understand a lot of the ways in which North Korea does things.
Americans have a similar problem. When we have contact with Americans, they’ll ask questions that to us seem quite strange. They’ll say, “Look at how many hungry people there are in North Korea, some of them are even starving to death, how can the government be so stable?” Or, “How can they so cruelly take so much money to develop nuclear weapons and missiles that can neither be eaten nor worn［还能无心旁骛地拿出那么多钱来去发展既不能吃又不能穿的武器和导弹呢]?” It’s really strange.
In Western countries, for example, in countries like the US, governments are produced through elections, and presidents are selected every four years. In any place like that, if there’s a policy failure which produces starvation, that government would be quickly kicked out of office. South Korea is like this; every five years they elect the president. No matter what happens, it doesn’t even need to be people starving, it could be that a building collapses or a bridge collapses; in any case, the government would face intense questioning and a torrent of abuse from the legislature [国会批的狗血喷头].
But North Korea isn’t like this. The leader of North Korea has supreme authority, and the legality of the government doesn’t emerge from elections.
Western countries don’t really understand some of the specific characteristics of the North Korean system. They always analyze North Korea through their own mindset [思维定势]—it’s like they’re observing North Korea through a pane of frosted glass [隔着一层毛玻璃来观察朝鲜]. From this angle, they aren’t able to look at the issues as accurately or as deeply as Chinese.
The Main Reason Why Jang Sung-taek was Cleansed
Host: Recently Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Sung-taek was eliminated (被清理). What was the real reason behind this? There are three voices on the matter that have been going around on the internet: Some say that there were political differences between him and Kim Jong-un over matters of economic reform and nuclear weapons development; others say that a plot of his to seize power was discovered by Kim Jong-un; and others say that it was because of a sex scandal (绯闻) between him and Kim’s wife.
Zhang Jiangui: These things coming out of the internet are all just inferences, and there’s no evidence to back them up. But based off of what North Korea has officially declared regarding Jang Sung-taek’s crimes, we can say that there are three parts:
One is the political aspect. That would be not obeying the Supreme Leader’s commands. Perhaps in a lot of areas, he didn’t carry out Kim Jong-un’s instructions well. Another is the organizing of a factional group (组织宗派集团). Obviously, working as he did in the upper levels for such a long time, he had amassed a group of cadres and supporters.
In North Korean political life this is not permitted, so it could be said he was part of a factional group (他是宗派集团). Publicly released sentencing documents reveal that he apparently had a plan to take power himself (他似乎有“为国择君“的企图). More precise details are not publicly available. In addition, according to North Korea’s official statues, he had monopolized power, and had assembled a shadow government (架空内阁). This is the political side.
The economic side is probably that his reach had become too great. As the head of the North Korean [Workers’] Party Central Finance Department [朝鲜党中央的行政部], what he had to take he took, and what we didn’t have to take he also took [该他抓的他抓，不该他抓的他也抓].
Especially on the economic side, as they say in North Korea, whoever controls the economy has money to spend [谁抓住了经济谁就有钱花]. Mineral works, fisheries, foreign trade: these are the kind of departments that can bring in foreign currency. Jang Sung-taek could have used his authority to grab some of the industries belonging to various cabinets and departments [可能利用权利，把这些属于内阁，属于其他部门控制的这几个行业抓在手里].
In this way he could have accumulated a lot of funds. Another aspect could be his mistakes in foreign trade and foreign economic cooperation. North Korea clearly pointed to his selling of minerals at low prices to foreign countries and to renting out ports to foreign countries for 50 year leases. These are specific reasons on the economic side (for why he was eliminated).
Then there are the problems of his lifestyle habits. Some say he “chased women” [说他”搞女人“], took drugs, and squandered money. Frankly speaking, the main reasons for his fall from power were on the political side.
Host: What position did Jang Sung-taek have in North Korea?
Zhang Liangui: Jang Sung-taek had a lot of posts. He was a member of the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee (党中央的政治局委员), the Deputy Chairman of the National Defense Commission (国防委员会副委员长), the Director of the Administrative Department of the Party Central Committee (党中央的行政部部门), and Chairman of the State Sports Guidance Committee (朝鲜的体育指导委员会委员长), etc.
During formal events, he wasn’t placed that near the front, but his actual authority was great. This is why the media had taken to calling him the number two (2号人物).
Host: We know that he led economic reforms and conducted trade with China. Why did he experience problems on the economic side of things?
Zhang Liangui: The North Korean Party Central Committee’s Administrative Department is a department with great power. It doesn’t resemble our general understanding of the Administrative Department as engaged in back scratching [就是抓一抓后勤], providing guarantees and so on.
In actuality, the head of the Administrative Department is responsible for the whole party and for public security (公安), security (安全保卫), armed police (武警) and those kind of special industries, as well as the intelligence agencies (情报部门).
Jang Sung-taek’s power was considerable. Because North Korea’s economy is underdeveloped, there’s this basic policy that all industries are to do everything possible to set up companies to produce revenue, which is to be handed over to the Central Government.
This describes the background of a lot of North Korean companies operating in China. Some of these companies are military (军方的), some are public security (公安的), some are Communist Youth League (共青团的), some are set up by one Central Government ministry or another (中央哪个部委办的).
Because North Korea has insisted on continuing nuclear tests, they’ve been sanctioned by the international community and run into foreign exchange difficulties. Now the North Korean government has given each department and each company a target for foreign exchange, and every year they are to hand over that much in foreign exchange. Jang Sung-taek did a lot of work in this area.
In conducting economic cooperation with China, we noticed that it was Jang Sung-taek who came forward to set up last year’s agreement with China to develop the two islands of Hwanggeumpyeong and Wihwa (黄金坪岛和威化岛). In terms of China’s economic cooperation [with North Korea], although Jang was involved in a lot of it, many of the really important decisions were not ones that he alone could have made – for example, deciding for how many years to rent out ports. Obviously this wasn’t a case of whatever Jang said went, as this involved issues of national sovereignty and so on. But now that Jang has been gotten rid of, he is said to have been responsible for all of these things.
Host: Those seven men entrusted to take care of the orphan prince [七位托孤大臣] before the death of Kim Jong-il, where are they now?
Zhang Liangui: The media reported after Kim Jong-il’s death on the people standing to the two sides of the hearse carrying his body. The first one on the right was Kim Jong-un, with the second being Jang Sung-taek. The third was Kim Ki-nam [金基南], the fourth was Choe Tae-bok [崔泰福]. Jang has already been executed. Kim Ki-nam has been the official in charge of North Korean propaganda work [朝鲜负责宣传工作的大总管] for a long time now. Choe Tae-bok was originally a teacher at Kim Il-sung University [金日成综合大学] and was Kim Jong-il’s teacher. These two men are highly respected.
On the left side were military men. The first was Chief of Staff Ri Yong-ho [总参谋长 李英浩]. On July 15, 2012, he was relinquished of all of his duties. Behind him is Kim Yong-chun [金永春], originally defense minister [国防部长], he’s also been relieved of his duties. Behind him was Kim Jong-gak (金正阁), he replaced Kin Yong-chun as defense minister, but after a few months resigned. At the very end was U Tong-chuk (禹东测), responsible for defensive work in the State Security Department (安全保卫部). In fact, he left office last year.
Ri Yong-ho was publicly announced to have been relieved of all his duties and was afterwards said to have been a counterrevolutionary. The other few, after having been removed from their posts, have not appeared in public again. There hasn’t been any explanation as to why they were removed.
Host: Choe Ryong-hae [崔龙海] was said to have been arrested for having rebelled against Kim Jong-un. Do you think there is any plausibility to these rumors?
Zhang Liangui: This is obviously a rumor or speculation. On December 17, the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, Choe Ryong-hae was still representing the military when he made an impassioned speech, expressing the military’s defense of the absolute leadership of Kim Jong-un, their defense of Kim’s singular position, and their obedience to his singular instructions.
Host: Jang was arrested on December 8 and was executed on December 12. When North Korea disposes of senior leaders, do they have to go through a judicial process?
Zhang Liangui: According to North Korean statements, Jang was arrested during an expanded session of the Politburo on December 8. This was formally announced on December 9.
In fact, before that, on December 3, South Korea had news that Jang had already been sacked. It was later revealed by South Korean media that this information came from South Korean intelligence agencies monitoring North Korean phone calls.
The execution was carried out on Dec. 12, and on Dec. 13 the news was made public. According to formal statements made by North Korea, the judgement was issued by a Special Military Tribunal of the State Security Department [国家安全保卫部特别军事法庭], with the execution being carried immediately after sentencing.
Host: There are some rumors that Jang was executed by having dogs set upon him—“death by canine” [“犬决”].
Zhang Liangui: And there are some who say they used anti-aircraft guns to kill him. Right now we have no way of judging whether these things are true or false. North Korea hasn’t gone further to reveal any more details.
Host: How much of Jang’s confession was true? Could he have been intimidated or coerced into confessing?
Zhang Liangui: I’m unable to make a judgement. Because we don’t know the situation of the trial, and especially because as Chinese we don’t understand the entirety of their judicial proceedings, it’s really difficult to judge.
Host: A lot of information is closed off and hasn’t been disclosed.
Zhang Liangui: South Koreans are really careful about these things; they study the photos that North Korea publicly issues with a magnifying glass. In the photo (of the trial), there are two soldiers holding on to Jang, whose head is lowered. South Koreans say that his eyes were quite blue, that he was definitely beaten. Can you really make out anything like that in such a small picture? There are some things that are just imagined.
Host: How did you feel after you heard the news that Jang had been executed?
Zhang Liangui: Because we didn’t have any contact with Jang, I can’t really talk about feelings. But when an issue like this emerges in North Korea, and they use this sort of cruel method to solve the issue, I feel really shocked.
Host: Some netizens have asked whether or not we could compare the Jang incident with the Lin Biao incident in Chinese history. After the Jang incident occurred, how are the North Korean people looking at this incident?
Zhang Liangui: Because our contact with North Korea is quite limited, especially after this incident occurred, and because it’s quite difficult for most Chinese people to make contact with the average North Korean, we really don’t know what the average North Korean feels about this situation. What we do see is just what the Korean Central News Agency [朝鲜通讯社] reports.
Host: After the Lin Biao incident occurred, there was a feeling amongst the people: They suddenly felt that if even the number two man in power could fall from power, then it would be difficult to believe state propaganda in the future. After the current Jang incident occurred, could a similar situation have emerged in North Korea?
Zhang Liangui: That’s a possibility. And because this incident recently transpired, and because we don’t know what sort of impact it will have on North Korean society, the psychology of the North Korean people, and on the political direction of North Korea, we really need to keep watching.
Host: Why is the official language of North Korea so “moody” [情绪化]? For example, in the judgement it was written that Jang was “a traitor whose death could not even atone for his crimes” [“罪不容诛的叛国贼”], “a dog no better than human scum” [“狗不如的人间渣滓”], and “the world’s number one eternal usurper and traitor” [“天下头号千古逆贼卖国贼”].
Zhang Liangui: This is one of the characteristics of North Korea, and it’s also part of their political culture. In order to express these moods, you have to come up with a special vocabulary [特色的词汇]. Looking at the essays of condemnation coming out of North Korea, like the judicial order, it reminds us of the big character posters of the Cultural Revolution period. The articles written then by the Red Guards were all written in fiery language. Chinese people who are slightly older and who lived through the Cultural Revolution, when they read these (North Korean) articles, won’t feel that they are all that unfamiliar.
The North Korean Regime and North Korean Society
Host: What is the domestic political structure of North Korea like?
Zhang Liangui: North Korea’s political structure is quite special. Although the Party and the military each have their own hierarchy, it’s a leader-based system in practice. According to formal North Korean statements, the Party is good, the army is good, (but) it’s only a collective of limbs, hands, legs and feet—in reality, the brain is dominant [党也好，军也好，只是一个集体的胳膊和手、腿、脚，实际上起支配作用的是大脑]. Who’s the brain? The leader. So when we talk about North Korea’s single leader system, it’s the leader who decides everything.
North Korea really emphasizes one’s background, which class one is from, what kind of family background one has, all of this will have a major role in determining that one’s future development. Especially those men who fought as guerrillas with Kim Il-sung, they are natural revolutionaries, and their descendants are revolutionaries, red descendants [红色后代]. This is the theory on [a person’s] social origins [这是出身论].
Then there is the system of descent. North Korea’s so-called Mt. Baekdu bloodline [白头山血统] is the bloodline of Kim Il-sung. According to the North Korean telling, in his early years Kim Il-sung carried out anti-Japanese resistance activities on Mt. Baekdu, and Kim Jong-il was born on Mt. Baekdu—this formed the Mt. Baekdu bloodline. Now every day the North Korean media talks about the Mt. Baekdu bloodline. That is to say, only those who are part of the Mt. Baekdu bloodline have the qualifications to be leader.
Recently they have emphasized that the Mt. Baekdu bloodline can only have one leader, so after the Jang incident, Rodong Sinmun published a song, “We Only Recognize Kim Jong-un, We Do Not Recognize Any Others” [“我们只认金正恩，其他的人都不认”]. This gave further prominence to Kim Jong-un’s particular position.
North Korea is just like that—although there are some cadres whose record of service may be longer, and there are some who have higher positions, while others’ (whose position) may be a little lower; while some are party cadres, and others are military cadres, the key to whether or not they can play a political role rests on whether or not they have the trust of the leader. If you have the trust of the leader, you have everything – you have power, you’ll have postings in any area. If a person doesn’t have the trust of the leader, he can’t do anything.
Host: Give us a bit of an introduction to the history of the peak of Mt. Baekdu and its lake.
Zhang Liangui: If you have an atlas of China printed before the 1960s, you’ll find that Mt. Baekdu’s Heaven Lake [长白山天池] was China’s. At that time, the China-North Korea border was about 20km south of Mt. Baekdu’s Heaven Lake. By the early 1960s, China and North Korea conducted border negotiations, and more than half of Heaven’s Lake was returned to North Korea. Of course, this was a complex process. Thus far, China has not officially announced this border treaty, so most of the precise details have not been well articulated.
Host: What kind of system does North Korea have? What is the difference between their system and that of the Saudi monarchy?
Zhang Liangui: It’s best not to compare them. Saudi Arabia has their own way of doing things, and North Korea has theirs.
Host: The three-generation Kim dynasty [金家三代] doesn’t count as a monarchy?
Zhang Liangui: They’ve put forward the following slogan in the media: “We must be the loyalists of the Baekdu lineage” [要做白头山血统世世代代的忠臣].
Host: Why, if North Korea was originally a country in the socialist camp, did it put into place the hereditary system [世袭] it has today?
Zhang Liangui: This is a really complex question, and it’s a question that Chinese people aren’t able to explain. With North Korea’s particular historical background and with their particular socio-cultural environment, this sort of result was perhaps inevitable.
Host: How should we look at a nominally Workers’ Party-led North Korea [朝鲜名义上是劳动党领导]? They say they have instituted a socialist system, but in actuality they‘re an autocratic country.
Zhang Liangui: North Korea has said that it’s implemented a socialist system, and a lot of us believe that the system they’ve implemented is socialist. In reality there are a lot of different types of socialism. The Communist Manifesto lists a number of different kinds of socialism. So we can say that the term socialism has already been generalized, and sticking labels onto it doesn’t help to explain anything. We can only say that every country has own particular political system.
Host: What kind of “-ism” has North Korea put in place [朝鲜实行的是什么主义]? Is it socialist?
Zhang Liangui: I think it’s best not to give it a label, as no label is accurate.
Host: What kind of authority has the North Korean regime depended on that has allowed it to continue on for so long?
Zhang Liangui: According to North Korean statements, it’s because of the correct leadership of their three generations of great leaders [三代伟大领袖正确领导], because of their superior social system which has made their country so stable, and because in all areas they are developing. In reality North Korea’s economy is in bad straits, the people have maintained social stability under conditions of food shortages and starvation. North Korea has a set of practices that they use. The system that North Korea uses to maintain stability is quite thorough, and the role of the military in political life is quite large.
For example, the military plays a really big role in maintaining social stability. Beyond them, there is also the armed police [武装警察] and public security personnel [公安人员] who maintain public order, as well as other intelligence agencies [其他情报系统] that help to maintain social stability. These various departments together form a network of social control, [对社会形成一张控制网] and are able to bring stability to North Korea. In a lot of areas, North Korea is really clever. Maintaining social stability through this kind of system, this kind of thinking, these kinds of methods, it’s relatively unique in the world.
Source: Zhang Liangui, “Zhang Liangui: The Situation in North Korea and North East Asia following the Jang Sung-taek Incident” [张琏瑰：张成泽事件后的朝鲜及东北亚局势], Consensus Online, January 22, 2014. Translation by Emile Dirks.